Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

The late 1940's and 1950's evoke proper housewifely images like Barbara Billingsley as June Cleaver, vaccuuming in heels and pearls. Although this was a Hollywood constructed image, achieving a near likeness to it was certainly the plan of the day. And doing so did not come easy. Quite a few colleges across the US offered young women home economics courses to teach them to be good wives and mothers through hands-on experience. The invented midwestern Wilton College in Grunwald's novel is one of those. Main character Henry House, borrowed from a local orphanage, was a "practice baby," intended to be lent to the program for two years of raising by a group of young, enthusiastic women learning to be mothers.

Martha Gaines, the house matron, ran a tight ship and subscribed to the very strict methods of child rearing about to be eclipsed by Dr. Sears' more gentle and loving approach. But Henry, at 6 weeks old, comes to a practice house at a time when babies are still tightly scheduled and cared for but not lavished with love. There is, as the title suggests, something irrestible about this baby and even the bitter, widowed matron comes to love Henry, craving his love in return, eventually lobbying to be allowed to keep Henry and raise him in the practice house as her own son.

As sought after as Henry is (and will continue to be for his entire life), he is emotionally stunted, marked by an inability to make connections with others, and incapable of not only fulfilling the needs of others but also of even wanting another person until or unless she is emotionally inaccessible to him. Being raised by so many mothers who must, of necessity, graduate and move on in their own lives, taught Henry that everything in life is transitory, fleeting. The desperate love of his "mother," matron Martha Gaines, comes too late and too threaded through with untruths about his beginnings for its depth and permanence to have an impact on Henry's emotional life. Being a "practice baby" completely defined Henry.

As he moves from childhood to adulthood, his search to belong somewhere continues through his efforts with his birth mother, his work as an animator at Disney, his move to 1960's London to be a part of The Beatles' The Yellow Submarine, and his eventual homecoming to the States. As he moves through each of these times in his life, he continually reenacts the heady infatuation, easy conquest, and abandonment of his infancy and early childhood. But instead of being the object of this, he inflicts this destructive cycle on the women in his life. And yet, he remains a sympathetic character, if not quite the irresistible one of the title.

The times and places of Henry's life are rendered in vivid and accurate detail. The secondary characters who swirl around him are fully realized, or as fully realized as they ever are to Henry, and human. If some of the plot threads are unfinished and abandonned, it is because that is how Henry, in his emotionally stunted development, leaves them. The story reinforces the idea that early childhood is vital in character formation, acknowledges that nature and nurture both play important roles, and highlights the damage that can be done, even inadvertantly, without love. With a unique and fascinating premise, I thoroughly enjoyed this well written novel.

For more information about Lisa Grunwald and the book visit her webpage or her Facebook page.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I am glad you liked this one because I have high hopes for it!!

  2. "early childhood is vital in character formation" - how true that is! I know that people can overcome troubled childhoods but it is very challenging.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this one! Thanks for being on the tour.

  3. This was an interesting premise that came to little. I hoped for more.


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